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Comment on Corbett, Reflections on Ways to Regard Haitian Voodoo

By Haines Brown <brownh@hartford-hwp.com>,
16 January 1996

I'm so overworked that I am responding to Bob Corbett's piece six months too late, and so to reply to his study of Voodoo through his Haiti list seems inappropriate. Therefore I started to write him just a brief personal letter, but it acquired a life of its own, grew in size and complexity, and so it seems best to append it to the on-line edition of Bob's paper. I'm sorry that what follows is rough sledding, but it was written in haste, and I struggled to remain brief and suggestive rather than definitive.

While I respect Bob's desire to avoid marginalizing spiritual phenomena such as present in Voodoo religion, I don't think merely defining independent domains of knowlege quite solves the problem. We live in a culture in which natural explanation reigns as king, and so pleas for the autonomy of psychic or spiritual domains necessarily ring hollow. Also as an atheist, I want to accept the authenticity and legitimacy of religious experience without embracing it myself (and, besides, I'm in love with a Baptist preacher!). I suggest we redefine what is natural.

I think Bob compromizes the success of his endeavor right from the start by proposing ontological categories that make a reconciliation of the natural and supernatural impossible. I don't think his definition of natural knowledge even reflects its current understanding. The point that what is natural is what is expected because it conforms to natural law is positivist and therefore subject to the twentieth-century criticisms of positivism. At the end of his essay, Bob refers to Popper's test of falsification, which was a heroic attempt to cope with the failure of covering law explanation, but I assume that Popper's position has been pretty well discredited by now (in practice, it is almost impossible to absolutely falsify any statement, and in fact reliable science does successfully put forward positive evidence for the truth of statements).

Especially in the second half of the twentieth century, our notion of natural explanation has profoundly changed. For example,

  1. Not all natural explanation appeals to covering laws, but also to unique conjunctures. For example, we account for the motions of the planets by subsuming them under the laws of mechanics, but each orbit is at the same time slightly irregular because of the specific circumstances in which it occurs. We want to explain both orders of phenomona and validate our statements about them.
  2. Much scientific explanation today is thermodynamic in the sense that it confronts emergent phenomena (having outcomes less probable than some initial state). Just because in these cases we must employ retrodictive explanation (starting with outcomes and working back to explain some prior state as a necessary condition, as in historiography) does not mean the phenomena is in any way unnatural. Arguably, almost half the cosmos involves emergent processes and the rest consists of dissipative processes in which outcomes are more probable than some initial condition.
  3. All experience is mediated: by the observational hypotheses implicit in our instruments of observation, our human powers of knowing, and our social location or cultural perspective. Therefore all knowledge necessarily includes truth not only about the object of knowledge, but its subject as well.

All this could be explored a great deal more, but to the extent it is valid, it tends to conflate Bob's three categories.

The second category, psycho-natural truth, simply adds the subjective element to natural knowledge to arrive at a sort of pastiche. The example used is how the expectations of the patient might influence the efficacy of the physician's remedies. The point is undoubtly true, but rests on a categorical distinction between objective and subjective knowledge which might in fact be presumptuous. I don't think the distinction can be supported if by objective is meant a truth that is independent of the knower. After all, if our culture defines what is meant by health, it must surely affect our judgement of the success of a medical praxis.

Because knowledge is not independent of the knower, some have wanted to define objective truth as merely the paradigm that happens to be supported by the prevailing authority. However, the admission of social determinants for scientific revolutions (paradigm shifts) does not imply that the content of scientific knowledge is independent of the natural world. A growing consensus of subjective opinion does not reach a mysterious threshhold at which point it makes a categorical leap from subjective opinion to become an objective truth; it remains partly subjective, regardless of how many share the view or whatever their qualifications might be. The extreme view that denies knowledge is at all constrained by any reality external to it is the solipsism of a few representatives of a particular western social class and has frightening moral implications.

It is generally admitted today that all observations change the reality of the object being observed, that all things are processes in which subject and object are interacting parts. Therefore, the abandonment of the chimera of pure objectivity is not to embrace pure subjectivism. The objective material world, the social milieu that supports our emergence as human beings, and the individual personality that results from this emergence (a negentropic improbable outcome of a quite natural process) are inseparable aspects of one broader process. Also, it can be argued by those so inclined that the supernatural is much part of that process (a God with personality) or is perhaps the phenomenon of emergence itself (God as Urgos).

However, this ontological conclusion leaves us with a rather serious epistological challenge. How do we validate our knowledge? Sebastino Timpanaro once argued that our test of one truth always appeals to some other truth, such as the criterion by which we establish the success of a praxis. In his view, knowledge is condemned to a prison of mirrors. I prefer not to embrace Timpanaro's pessimism and insist that what he really critized was the standard by which we would estimate the success of a praxis, rather than praxis itself as the basis of validation.

Praxis might offer a basis for validation, not because success validates the particular knowledge in terms of which we act, but because our knowlege supports praxis, empowers us to act in creative ways, whether or not outcomes are successful. In principle (in terms of thermodynamics), it is possible to know scientifically whether a particular praxis is an emergent process. If it is, the knowledge in terms of which the praxis took place must have the quality of truth. That is the person, social context, and the objective material world participate in one process in which human emergence manifests the adequacy of the conditions necessary for emergence, conditions which include both knowledge and nature. Without that emergence, we stagnate and reduce to a mere biological existence and loose what is distinctively human (become a zombie undistinguished as human). We are not living in the eighteenth century nor are we Hegelians, and so we cannot appeal to the self-realization of a supposed human nature as a goal of our emergence. Rather, the emergent process itself is human nature.

This existential approach might seem hopelessly abstract if all creative activity were to imply the validity of its presuppositions. However, this ignores an internal criterion to which we must turn, the need to define the relation between one body of knowledge and all other bodies of knowledge. If pursued, this internal test should enable us to measure the relative adequacy of any particular knowledge and therefore the degree to which a knowledge can approximate truth.

Before addressing this issue, we note that another problem raised by our existential approach is that it might be peculiarly Eurocentric in that the struggle for salvation in Christianity, the journey in Islam, or in modern times the fetish of material progress, are only manifestations of what Oswald Spengler called the West's Faustian soul. As Ab. Hincmar of Reims (9th c.), an important founder of Western thought, once put it, the human condition is a struggle to row across a river in order to reach God on the other bank. While we can never reach Him in this life, should our efforts cease, our boat will sink to the bottom and into the black mud of perdition (the principal vice of the time was acedia, an unwillingness to struggle).

Whether such an existential outlook, which is at the heart of Marxism, for example, is a trait peculiar to the West and now dying with it, or whether the condition of the world today is such that most people, for better or worse, have no alternative but to engage in the struggle for progress (the position of the world historian, Theodore von Laue, for example), is not a question to address here. However, I cannot help noting parenthetically that progress can never be reduced to material gain, although it can't be separated from it either. Again, it is an emergent system as a whole that is the issue, not the isolation of one of its parts.

However, we need to discover how to make the validation of knowledge operational. I think the answer is that, if the acquisition of knowledge is one process within a system of processes, then its emergence is constrained by the other processes in that system, including natural processes. If so, then the extent to which it approximates truth is manifested in the extent to which it has a determinant relation with all other knowledge. Put otherwise, it is only the constraints imposed by nature that ensures that there will be a determinant relation of all knowledges, so that human knowledge is not emprisoned in a hall of mirrors. It also follows that a determinant relation between branches of knowledge is the condition of successful praxis, for no sphere of praxis is in fact autonomous. Each branch of knowledge constrains the pursuit of knowledge in another in that it defines the probability distribution of the possible outcomes. The extent to which one can define the determinant relation of a particular knowlege to all other knowledge, that knowledge approximates truth.

If one accepts the existence of the supernatural, then the mutual surface of spiritual life might join together the supernatural and the human psyche. Just as I see no reason why those persuaded of the reality of the supernatural need deny doubt that supernatural causes have efficacy in the material world, I see no reason to call one branch of knowledge scientific and not another. If one accepts the supernatural, then does it not then become quite natural? None of these categories, natural, psychic or spiritual, can be said to be either purely subjective or objective. Whether we happen to be believers or not, there is apparently no need for categorical distinctions that prejudice the validity of one or the other.

If all aspects of reality are engaged in one process that is contradictory in that it is a system made up of opposite processes, some emerging and others dissipating, then all categories of knowledge embrace both the universal and the particular. It is not helpful to start out with Greek ontological presuppositions that the universal and particular are hypostatized opposites instead of the contradictory and necessary parts of any emergent process. The particular is what distinguishes a process, while the universal is its relation to other processes, including the dissipating environment required by an emergent process. Rather than allow ideological preconceptions that might stand in the way of knowlege that might include the supernatural, our ontology ought rather to respond to what we now know the world to be like (a position called scientific naturalism, which is nicely discussed in Wesley Salmon's Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World).

Such an approach engages the particular and universal, the individual actor and that person's social, natural, and perhaps supernatural environments. It is the individual's relation to a dissipating environment, whether it be natural or social, that supports his emergence and empowers him to act. This is the basis of an important definition of social class (a shared relation of production). The more universal the class, the more it has a determinant relation with other processes, and the more likely that emergent knowledge approximates truth. If the supernatural is taken into account, then spiritual life must be considered as well in order that knowledge acquire a greater probability of truth.

If one insists that the supernatural is both independent and real, then it offers an environment required by the individual or society to support creative praxis or behavior that appears to escape the determinations of nature (hence, super natural). Examples might be the capacities one acquires when mounted in Voodoo religion, or the possible future apotheosis of the individual in Western religion, etc. On the other hand, if one denies the supernatural, then spiritual life simply expresses what is naturally emergent in the individual or in society. Being emergent, it does not reduce to natural determinations and so appears to be above nature. It is this unity and interdependence of two opposite processes, one emerging and the other dissipating (what in Marxist terms is called a contradiction), that liberates praxis from a probable (functional) relation with nature. The effect is the same, whether one believes in the supernatural or not. So I'm not sure the secular and supernatural world views are really at odds, but may simply be ways to apprehend the same thing.

Haines Brown
16 January 1996